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The Uses of Anger…Or Not

February 13, 2012

I stole part of the title of this post from one of my most favorite Audre Lorde essays. The essay was published in Sister Outsider in 1984. You know that stupid ice-breaker question everyone always asks, “If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?”. Without a doubt I would say Audre Lorde. When I read her work I feel like she’s the vehement feminist mother I never had who is telling me what she believes, how I’ve strayed, and how to get along in this ridiculous world.

(I’d also want to meet Emily Dickinson, Nick Drake, Albert Camus, Sappho, and Margaret Atwood, but those are other stories.)

I’ve been wondering a lot lately about anger. My anger, other women’s anger, the anger that those in subordinated or repressed groups feel and what it means. Is it helpful? Useful? Holding us back?

I have a friend who is reading this lovely book called Love in Action that I still need to pick up and get to in the midst of homework. But we have spoken about anger on some occasions and discussed its usefulness in activism and social change. I want to be able to be angry. So there’s my bias, if you were looking for it. I feel like Lorde has always told me that I can be and that we should be:

I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful…anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.
-Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism. 1981.

When the whole she-bang was going on with Komen and Planned Parenthood apparently someone hacked their website in a pretty epic way so that what was originally a nice message about ending breast cancer, became a politicized expression of their defunding PP (See hack below).

Screen shot of the Komen's website hackedThis, to me, was anger. There wasn’t a huge point to the hack but a statement was made and it was done in what ends up feeling like a little moment of spite and frustration. And I loved it. Granted, it might not be the most useful thing that happened in the whole debacle but it was loud and unapologetic and made me giggle (I hate the word giggle, but it really is appropriate to the caliber of induced laughter).

So there’s anger…

And then this morning as I’m reading through Gender Inequality by Judith Lorber, I stumble on an essay that makes me rethink anger. Writing on what she terms “Nego-Feminism”, Obioma Nnaemeka says this:

Western feminism has turned down the volume on sexual politics, but the residues are still a driving force…The language of feminist engagement in Africa (collaborate, negotiate, compromise) runs counter to the language of Western feminist scholarship and engagement (challenge, disrupt, deconstruct, blow apart, etc.)

“HOLD THE PHONE” I said to myself sitting at my kitchen table with a breakfast veggie burger. If you’ve read any Marx or Lorde’s discussion of Marx, then you would know about this whole thing about how ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. The gist is basically that you cannot use the tools (language, laws, social rules, etc.) of the current hegemonic system (in the U.S. this means WASP-y culture) to bring about social change. So if we want change, we have to operate outside the constructed boundaries of society because they’re holding us back anyway, how could we then use them to achieve our goals (that currently lie outside of what society deems “okay”).

With this in mind, I thought back to all of the feminist discourse that I had come across in my life thus far and realized that Nnaemeka is right. Western feminism does tend to use quite jarring language in order to achieve at the least, an audience, and at the most, what we actually want. Then, I started thinking about what kinds of words these are. Them be fightin’ words.

So, in our own attempts to dismantle (ahh!) patriarchy, are we linguistically using the tools of the master to achieve our goals? Is this anger that we have born of our own volition or a learned patriarchal response to subordination and repression? And if this anger does lie in patriarchy, then how can I (we) move forward without reverting to some crappy, essentialist notion of women as all love, cooperation, daisies, and sunshine?

I hope I’ve been able to somehow translate this very large conundrum of mine to you, because it’s definitely a big one. Because even though I know anger does not mean power, sometimes it feels powerful and helpful and the emotion that I want because to not be angry, for me, would feel like relinquishing myself to go sit in a corner and wallow in sadness about all of the inequalities of the world.

I want to be angry about sexual violence, it’s stupid. And though I try to not react with anger when someone says, “that’s so gay” (because it prevents me from helping them see the error of their ways), I want to be able to feel angry. I’ll leave you with a portion of an essay titled “Kicking Ass” by Veena Cabreros-Sud from the book To Be Real  that sort of inspired this post:

In many of the well-protected enclaves where feminism is discussed, a woman’s response to violence with violence is not viewed as one of the many expressions of resistance nor as a natural, human response to daily humiliation, but as a sociopolitical faux pas. The crazy woman. I felt for the man who shot those commuters on the Long Island Railroad. How taboo. If you listened past the New York Times opinions on the subject, many others did also. Terrorized as I am by my understanding and horrified as I am by the act of seemingly random violence, I’d like to go beyond dismissing him as the Crazy Man. Because then I would be the Crazy Woman and we would be living in a society of Crazy Millions. Perhaps the challenge if to question why America has created so many crazies. And to ask how much longer can we live together in a country made up of segregated worlds….At the end of the day, power concedes to nothing except to power. It’s a useful thing to know.

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